Chemi Rosado-Seijo is a Puerto Rican artist and skateboarder who has created some of the most iconic art and community action projects in Puerto Rico. From painting the facades of an entire town in different shades of green, building a skate ramp/hang-out-spot by the sea, or changing the focus of the voices we pay attention to in the museum, his art invites a new understanding of a specific place and its people.
Chemi is also one of the first artists I learned of who considered himself socially engaged. La Perla’s Bowl and El Cerro illustrate how his practice embraces social engagement as a life-long relationship with participants and collaborators that stimulates social exchange, networks of support, and artistic thinking beyond the project’s specificities.
This conversation expands on some issues noted in We Did This–a previous interview with Jesús “Bubu” Negron, a friend and collaborator of Chemi, who also works in community organizing through art. Both artists have made significant contributions to the socially engaged art landscape in Puerto Rico, with a particular sensibility towards communities in their contexts and an understanding of engagement that questions the possibilities of this artistic practice inside the larger art world and its institutions.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: I was introduced to your work by hanging out with Bubu Negrón1, and I would like to know how you see the relationship between hanging out and socially engaged art.
Chemi Rosaado-Seijo: Of course, hanging out is essential for art projects.
In the construction of El Bowl de La Perla (La Perla’s Bowl), we were all a group of friends. I had a skate ramp set up in my studio, as a part of another project titled History on Wheels, and some skater friends from La Perla had a key to come in whenever they wanted. When I had to leave that studio, the boys asked to place the skate ramp in the coastal neighborhood, La Perla, and in the process of relocating it, we thought about making it out of cement, as our friend Boly was always suggesting, using debris from some torn-down houses in the area recently and were perfect for it. That same day, a friend said he could bring his Bobcat and move the chunks of debris for us, and, in the same spirit, neighboring folks started to help— with certain doubts that we would succeed at making a skating bowl in two months, but collaborating anyway from the beginning. I believe it all came to fruition because we had been hanging out in that neighborhood for a long time, for real.
Honestly, El Bowl is the best proof of something made through hanging out. The whole time, we enjoyed the process of making the bowl as a pool/sculpture. We worked every day, hanging out and having a great time. We never went there to suffer or have unpleasant times. If things weren’t going well, we would hop on our skateboards and take off.
Diana: Part of your work is characterized by an active participation from the communities you are involved with. How do you get your collaborators to participate in the aesthetic thinking or metaphorical aspects of a project?
Chemi: Generally, I try to work from the common knowledge we share in Puerto Rico, and part of what has worked in the projects is that they are related to the history of the site and the place.
In a project like El Cerro2, the metaphor emerges thinking like an ordinary citizen; it’s like a game, “to turn The Hill into a hill”, recognizing there are a lot of other implications like neighborhood pride and the place’s identity. After a while, we would be negotiating super swell about aesthetic issues with the community, for example, deciding which house should be painted next, what shade of green to use, or painting the best maroon house, really considering the color palette in detail.
I grew up in the countryside, and here in Puerto Rico there’s the imperialistic idea that the rural is the old, the abandoned, and that the city and modernity are the best. So, within that game of actually turning The Hill into a hill, by using green and maroon, we can question everything from our relationship with nature to whether art can really make a social intervention that works for something, and change the perspective about that nature and rurality that people have wanted to reject.
It is also important that what we do makes sense and has quality. It’s important that my son likes it, as well as my skater friend, and my brother who is an agronomist, and the people I appreciate, who know me and know my work. It is also important to share it with someone like you or Bubu, who has another knowledge of art. It is equally important that my mother and collaborator, a feminist professor and activist social worker, sees it as something beautiful too, as a good metaphor, as a work of art.
Something about Puerto Rico is that, fortunately, we learned to work as a crew with the homies, and we all do it openly all the time. It’s important for us to share our ideas, to ask each other questions. That’s why my ideas can come with Bubu’s input, or from whoever I am hanging out with at the moment, and I share that without fear.
Diana: I became a social worker after I moved to the US and couldn’t find a job in the art field, and I would like to know what kind of possibilities you see between social work and the arts from your experience with your mom?
Chemi: We collaborate a lot. My vision of social work is not that of a worker sitting in an office but one who is really for and in the neighborhood. There are methodologies we have developed together, such as asking questions, getting to know the neighborhood’s history and the needs people tell you about, and then coming up with solutions.
I think that is important, the methodology of social work that asks, learns, and builds relationships, which can also be done through art. If, as artists, we hold ourselves accountable, work at a site, learn its history, and think about what needs to be worked on in this specific place, we will end up doing social interventions with a social work approach.
Diana: How do you approach your projects when working with communities you’ve had no previous relationship with?
Chemi: When I worked with the guards at MoMA3, we started a year and a half earlier, for example. We would meet once or twice a month for three or four days to develop the project. We gathered their ideas, which were terrific and there were lots of them, then honed them to the real possibilities and brought them closer to what interested me, which was their voices. What ended up happening is that the project was them talking about artworks and reinterpreting the museum. The title was also a semi-democratic process; we were all together discussing ideas and voting until Beyond The Uniform came up, and it had immediate consensus. We established a very solid relationship over a year; we called ourselves The BTU Family.
Diana: When you gave a talk at the KSMoCA Lecture Series4, you mentioned that El Trampolín (The Diving Board) sparked your interest in doing art with the people. How was that process?
Chemi: El Trampolín arrived like a hyperrealism of a cultural phenomenon that is very interesting to me. People arrive from all over Puerto Rico by car or public transit. Kids, teenagers, and adults come to jump from the Puente De Los Dos Hermanos, a crucial point in our history. That bridge, at its moment, came to connect the big island with the islet that is Viejo San Juan, which is where the colonization by the Spaniards first took place. It is in that spot where we go to have fun.
We installed a diving board, which generally would be in private pools, on the bridge, and suddenly there were lines of people ready to jump. That’s what happened with El Trampolín. The kids loved it so much, and people were sharing and celebrating one of our most beautiful resources in Puerto Rico: the ocean, and that was something we didn’t expect. It even allowed us to meet a boy that was so agile that he deserved to be in a university league or professional diving. That type of impact is what later took me to try El Cerro and other projects.
Diana: At what point did you decide to call yourself a socially engaged artist?
Chemi: I think I first learned the term in a Creative Capital course. That was the first time I heard that, as artists, we should be taking time off, and that we can manage money well, among other concepts that I had a different perception of. It was there that a pair of colleagues told me, “No, Chemi, now we do socially engaged art,” and I realized what we do had a name and everything. It is no longer like, “my projects that nobody understands;” instead, it is precisely the moment to do them.
An “art of social engagement,” sounds really good. Before this, we would call it “interventions.” When Bubu did the project with the cigarette butts, and I did El Trampolín, those were interventions through art in the social field. El Cerro, for instance, was really a social engagement, we practically married that project; there is an engagement forever and ever.
Diana: Talking with another Puerto Rican artist, I told him that I was doing a master’s in art and social practice, and he said that I could probably be living in a contradiction. For him, to claim as art something that has been done with others is, in a way, a colonizing act. I’m not sure if I concur, but I think it is a valid question. Do you think there is a paradox of socially engaged art as a colonizing practice?
Chemi: I think that is a statement that can come from people who don’t work with people, or who don’t relate with social classes other than theirs. It is easy from the intellectual field and from the artist’s circle to say that “we are colonizing and using the people.” But they could go to the neighborhoods and ask. We are not smarter than the people in the neighborhood, they will know if they are being “used” or not. However, there are some projects in which it does happen, where there is a more calculated approach to social practice. I don’t see that a lot, but it can happen.
I also believe there is a difference between social practice and socially engaged art. A practice with social elements, where society is used for an art project, without a need for commitment, is another practice, and I think those terms should be completely separated. I have seen places where they offer courses on things, for example, “how to convince people to participate in projects,” and you must take that with a grain of salt, knowing there is still a lot to learn.
About ten years ago, Mary Jane Jacob invited a group of socially engaged artists and collaborators to discuss what she was researching, which was the possibility to academize or not the artistic practice we were carrying out. There was Rick Lowe from Project Row Houses with the accountant for the project, Pablo Helguera, Tania Bruguera, me with my mom, and several others. We met twice over the summer for two weeks, and the result was that it was not possible. It was very intense; there were many discussions and lots of great things, but we understood at that moment that it should not be academicized.
Diana: How did the group come to that conclusion?
Chemi: In my perspective, if I understand one thing about this socially engaged art, it is that it is not academic. Painting, engraving, and being a designer or sculptor can be academic, and that is super cool. I love what we learn in art school; composition, techniques, and everything else. But, for some reason, I am more interested in installing a trampoline to create a space of freedom and pride in what we do.
We are artists who immerse ourselves in social issues and do things that can go well or go wrong. Many of us who work this way don’t do it only for the intellectual class or for people with money that can support our work. In fact, because of the interest in social commitment, we decide to deal with all these structures because they can mutually benefit. I wholeheartedly believe in those exchanges. There is fundamental knowledge in each social group that ought to be connected.
I think the art world needs to come down to earth at some point because it creates very distinct relationships and wisdom that aren’t going to happen otherwise. If we share more between artists and people from all spheres of society— children, adults, skaters, teachers, guards, surfers, the homeless, millionaires, curators, and the public, we create a better society, and that does not need to be written in any academic book.
However, regardless of what I may or may not believe in, I think it is great that there are people who dare to academicize this madness of practice.
Diana: I also have understood that you are very good at creating workshops. What is Chemi’s method for coming up with workshops quickly and easily?
Chemi: Well, you can do workshops on everything. Draw your own skateboard, make your own shirt, the history of your neighborhood… There are a thousand possibilities; it depends on you. You can use the same artist system I mentioned before; it can be about a place and all its particularities. The important thing is that something is accomplished. There must be an outcome of the workshop, something that is done in a group.
Diana: It sounds like intentional hanging out.
Chemi: Workshops are a form of hanging out. Like the weekly meetings with the guards at MoMA to discuss the ideas that each one brought. Or El Cerro, where we started with a workshop to paint your house and in the same week we were also doing a Making-your-own-El Cerro- t-shirt workshop. What these types of gatherings allow us is to get to know each other faster, and while getting to know each other, we are also doing things.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, educator, and cultural worker transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis, and participatory learning processes in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate local cultures and their contexts.
Before moving to the US, Diana was Head of Public Programs at Espacio Odeón, an organization for interdisciplinary creation in Bogotá, Colombia. Formerly she was part of the lugar a dudas’ team, an art space dedicated to contemporary art practices with a global focus in Cali, Colombia. As an independent researcher, she has been an artist in residence in La Usurpadora (Puerto Colombia), Bisagra (Lima), Tlatelolco Central (Mexico City), and Beta-Local (San Juan, Puerto Rico), studying different popular culture phenomena and socially engaged art practices in Latin America. In 2021 she founded the Centro del Conocimiento Migrante, an initiative for enjoyment, experimentation, and cultural exchange between migrant communities in Portland; this project emerged from Diana’s experience in the social work field, working with Latinx families in different public schools in East Portland.
Chemi Rosado-Seijo (he/him) is a Puerto Rican socially-engaged artist whose practice consists of community-based interventions linked to the site where they have been developed. Often his artwork, projects, or interventions are set and/or developed with the communities that have inspired them.
He graduated from the painting department of the Puerto Rico School of Visual Arts in 1997. In 1998, he worked with Michy Marxuach to open a gallery that transformed into a not-for-profit organization presenting resources and exhibitions for contemporary artists in Puerto Rico. In 2006, he inaugurated La Perla’s Bowl, a sculpture built with residents of San Juan’s La Perla community that functions as both a skateboarding ramp and an actual pool. From 2009 to 2013, Rosado-Seijo organized exhibitions in his apartment in Santurce, creating a center for meeting and exchange in the Puerto Rican contemporary art scene. In 2015 he started El Festival de Chiringas, an annual kite festival in collaboration with residents from the La Perla community in Old San Juan.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program